Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained.

Coffee and craft

Julian Baggini writes in a thoughtful essay that high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom have thrown out the idea of “artisan” espresso and bought Nespresso machines, which use factory-sealed capsules of precision-ground coffee and can be operated with the push of a button. In fact, as Baggini discovered in a blind taste test, Nespresso is consistently better, or at least more consistently good, than “artisan” espresso made by hand. But, he asks, is a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee — just the momentary pleasure it gives us, a mere utilitarian instrument? Or is it something more — the sum of its relationships to other things?

Craft and ornament in baking

One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt.

The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft

Time to get serious, now. Thanksgiving is only a day away, and if you haven’t started your preparations yet, you’d best get cracking. I don’t mean brining the turkey or kneading bread dough: I mean being thankful. The point of setting this day aside isn’t just to eat. And yet, of course, to show our gratitude, we hold a feast. How, exactly, is a feast supposed to make us thankful?

I was thinking about this question after reading my local newspaper last week, which wants me to breathe easier about Thanksgiving.

Of pancakes and elbow grease

One Sunday morning last winter I made pancakes, and then I made them again the next Sunday, and my daughter decided that twice was a tradition. Even the dogs started expecting pancakes. I go out to get the paper, I come back, they’re circling the stove. Ever since I have made pancakes nearly every Sunday morning, a lot of pancakes. Making a lot of something — making it often — is of course the best way to learn to do it well, especially when it comes to baking, which is harder to learn than cooking simply because it’s a black box; there’s no adjustment on the fly, no correcting the seasoning. And I would say that I’ve learned to make mighty good pancakes, but not because I figured out how to tweak the recipe (though I did) or discovered exactly the right turn of the stove’s knob (though I did that too). What I learned was that there aren’t any shortcuts: you have to work. And nobody, but nobody, tells you that in cookbooks anymore.

Two stools

Since I’ve written a couple of times about working on a shaving horse, I suppose I should post some examples of what I’ve been able to do on it. So far, two stools, functional and good-enough looking, and good projects for building skills.

For my first day working on a shaving horse out at Duke Homestead I just grabbed whatever potentially suitable wood I had lying around, which happened to be some pieces of Bradford pear and dogwood branches I’d trimmed the previous spring, still with bark on. The dogwood was easy enough to work, the pear considerably more challenging: not only is it harder wood, but none of the branches was straight, and each had side branches that had to be trimmed, leaving knots. Back home, after I built my own shaving horse and bought a spokeshave, I had another go at the pear branches. The tricky grain made a good exercise for learning to use the tools, and with considerable patience they turned out gorgeous. So I dug out a piece of butternut I’d bought years ago, cut it for a seat, and made a stool.

Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school.

The thirty-dollar shaving horse

Until my first day doing living history I’d never used a shaving horse before, never used a drawknife or a spokeshave. I’d always thought that someday I might like to take a chairmaking class, just for fun, but that it wasn’t something I really saw myself doing much.

Shows what I know. One day muddling my borrowed-tool way through demonstrations and I knew I needed a shaving horse and tools of my own, if only so that I could pay decent respect to the real craftsmen whose role I was playing. It turned out, though, that even though a shaving horse is one of the simplest, rough-and-tumblest workbenches a man can make, it might just be harder to make in 2011 than it would have been in 1700. I had to get a little inventive. What follows is the story of my thirty-dollar, down and dirty, twenty-first century shaving horse.

Old timey

A couple of weeks ago I spent my first day volunteering as a costumed museum interpreter, which is not something I ever saw myself doing. I’d worked with the site director and staff before, and figured that, as an out-of-work historian, I’d see if I could help them out in any way — doing a little research or leading a few tours, I thought, but when they found out that I build furniture with hand tools, the next thing I knew I was being fitted for 1870s clothes. And so there I was on a ninety-degree North Carolina June Saturday outside a nineteenth-century farmhouse demonstrating “traditional” woodworking.